We haven't seen "The Dark Knight Rises," the final installment of director Christopher Nolan's blockbuster Batman trilogy. We don't know anything about the movie that's not in the trailers. We have no idea what Batman's fate is in the final scene.
For all we know, DC's famed superhero could retire from crime-fighting, settle down with Catwoman and spend the rest of his days on Facebook describing what he had for lunch and declining friend requests from Marvel's Iron Man and Thor.
But that's no reason to avoid playing the guessing game that is sweeping the nation: When the movie ends, what happens to Batman?
Will he live? Will he die? Does he continue to watch over Gotham City? Or is he passing the torch (or cowl) to a replacement?
The topic has more buzz to it than the muffled voice emanating from the evil Bane's facemask. Since the director has made it clear that he's making only three Batman movies, speculation is flying on how he'll conclude his opus.
Potential spoiler alert: What follows are mere guesses and possible clues to the ending. The celebrated endings of other movies also will be examined, along with classic Hollywood films that dared to kill off their heroes.
Who knows what's in store? In 2008's "The Dark Knight," Bruce Wayne, a k a Batman, told Rachel Dawes: "You know that day that you once told me about, when Gotham would no longer need Batman? It's coming."
Maybe that day is Friday, when "The Dark Knight Rises" opens. The world awaits the answer.
Nolan told the Los Angeles Times that one of the goals of his new movie is delivering "a unified statement, a real ending, a true conclusion." So what does that mean for Batman? The trailers for the new movie certainly are packed with ominous dialogue.
In one of them, Bane, the movie's villain and the character who once broke Batman's back in the comic books, says, "When Gotham is ashes, you have my permission to die."
Another trailer has Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) saying, "You don't owe these people any more. You've given them everything." And then Batman says, "Not everything. Not yet."
On Thursday night, fans were in a tizzy after David Letterman, while discussing the movie with Hathaway, said that "in the end, Batman is dead." The CBS "Late Show" host took it back immediately with a laugh and told viewers, "He ain't dead; just relax, will ya?"
Hathaway jokingly chided Letterman with, "I just want you to know the wrath that you have just invited onto yourself." And she was right, Web-wise. The buzz then bubbled online: Was it a joke or a spoiler?
Over at Big Ben's Comix Oasis in Allen Park, Mich., the possibility of Batman kicking the bucket is getting mixed reviews from fans.
"Some of my newer readers are going for it, and some of my older readers who've been reading Batman for years are not so happy about it," says manager Gary Banac.
Banac himself is skeptical of the theory. "You wouldn't want to kill off your No. 1 comic-book guy," he muses. "If they do kill him off, they need to have the Lazarus Pit in the background or something, and that's just for comic-book fans and geeks. They would know what that means." (In Batman comic books, Lazarus Pits are natural pools composed of a substance with healing and resurrecting powers.)
Another popular guess is that Batman will retire and hand over his cape and cowl to a successor.
Dan Mishkin, a former writer for DC Comics who worked for many of its titles (including Batman and Superman), envisions Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character - named John Blake (and rumored on the Web to actually be Dick Grayson, a k a Robin and Nightwing) - taking over as the new Batman.
But the Gordon-Levitt character wouldn't necessarily have the anger and vigilante thirst that has been a motivating force for Bruce Wayne as Batman. He could be "the Bruce Wayne who gets it right because he's not obsessed," says Mishkin.
Comic-book writer Rob Worley ("Scratch9") also predicts a transition to a new Caped Crusader. He thinks Batman will retreat after some sort of decisive victory by Bane (Tom Hardy) and leave Gordon-Levitt's character to take over his duties.
"I think what the movie ends up with is the Christian Bale character takes the mantle back, but there's sort of a passing of the torch. So there's this set up to continue the franchise, without Christopher Nolan or Christian Bale," says Worley.
In the world of comic books, it's not unusual for characters like Superman to be bumped off and then brought back to life - with a creative explanation. Especially in DC and Marvel superhero comics, "fans are really adamant that continuity be maintained," says Worley. "So if the character was killed, they have to create a story to explain why he's still alive or how he came back."
Movies, however, don't have such worries. This summer's "The Amazing Spider-Man" simply rebooted the franchise by going back to the origin story and using a new Spidey, Andrew Garfield, and new director, Marc Webb. Superman has had two recent remakes with 2006's "Superman Returns" starring Brandon Routh and the upcoming 2013 Superman movie with new leading man Henry Cavill.
Whatever happens in "The Dark Knight Rises," fans assume there will be a non-Nolan Batman remake sooner rather than later. With Marvel's "The Avengers" earning more than a billion dollars worldwide, the pressure is on for DC to produce a Justice League ensemble film that would include Batman, Superman and other DC icons.
Fans like Dan Merritt, owner of Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Mich., are just hoping "The Dark Knight Rises" has a conclusion that ties up loose ends and completes the trilogy with a definitive, impressive exclamation point.
And he wouldn't mind if Batman goes out on an upbeat note either. "I would really like to see him win in the end, right?"
SPOILER ALERT: HOLLYWOOD'S BEST MOVIE ENDINGS EVER
No matter how "The Dark Knight Rises" concludes, fans are expecting the ending to be amazing - enough, perhaps, to join these examples of Hollywood's best endings ever. Spoiler alert: The final scenes will be described below. But if you haven't seen these movies yet, what are you waiting for?
"Casablanca" (1942): Humphrey Bogart bids farewell to Ingrid Bergman for the good of freedom fighting in this World War II classic. And then comes perfection, as Bogey walks off with Claude Rains, quipping, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
"Dr. Strangelove" (1964): With the world about to be destroyed because a crazed general has ordered a nuclear attack, Stanley Kubrick's biting satire on the Cold War era wraps up with a montage of bombs detonating to the soothing strains of "We'll Meet Again." Welcome to the madness of mutually assured destruction.
"Planet of the Apes" (1968): After spending eons in hibernation, astronaut Charlton Heston crash-lands on a mysterious planet where talking chimps, gorillas and orangutans are in charge. The big reveal? He spots a remnant of the Statue of Liberty on a beach and realizes where he is. Somebody back at mission control sure has a lot of explaining to do.
"The Godfather" (1972): Sometimes a cinematic treasure closes with a whimper, not a bang. Take the Francis Ford Coppola epic about the Corleone family, where Kay (Diane Keaton) watches as mob lieutenants kiss the hand of the new boss, her husband, Michael (Al Pacino). Then the door closes on his office - and her false hopes.
"The Sixth Sense" (1999): One of the most famous twists in screen history is in this M. Night Shyamalan hit about a little boy who sees dead people. OK, the psychologist played by Bruce Willis is even now, we can't bring ourselves to spill it.
5 MOVIES IN WHICH MAJOR CHARACTERS MEET THEIR MAKER
The film industry can be reluctant to bump off lead characters - why squander a possible sequel? But it's been done before, and - spoiler alert - rarely so effectively as in these five classic movies.
"Camille" (1936): The great Greta Garbo, as a courtesan with a heart of gold, puts on a brave face in her final scene with her young lover. Like onions, it's a surefire ticket to a good cry.
"Psycho" (1960): Uber-auteur Alfred Hitchcock pulled the rug out from under viewers by killing off Janet Leigh's character near the beginning of the movie with the famous shower scene. It was the start of a new, no-holds-barred age of horror films.
"The Exorcist" (1973): The devil went down to Georgetown in this ultimate scary movie, but a priest played by Jason Miller figured out a way to save Linda Blair's Regan. How? Let's just say elevators were more popular than stairs for a while.
"Titanic" (1997): Oh, Leo! The magnificent Mr. DiCaprio made the girls swoon in this epic disaster film. Some boyfriends won't even share their popcorn, much less give you the last piece of flotsam to rest on after your ship sinks.
"Saving Private Ryan" (1998): Tom Hanks was the heart of Steven Spielberg's devastatingly accurate re-creation of the D-Day landing. His Army captain character symbolized the sacrifices of the soldiers of the greatest generation.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Opens with some midnight screenings Thursday ; opens wide Friday
Rated PG-13; intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language
2 hours, 44 minutes
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